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Reconsidering Reinhold Niebuhr

Posted on: April 02, 2017

Category: Theology

Reconsidering Reinhold Niebuhr

It is hard to avoid thinking about political issues these days. And politics as it is, it is also hard to avoid thinking about truth and falsity. When a political regime as powerful as the United States Government freely offers truth and facts like choices in a candy store, there is cause to worry.

With such contemplation, I turned my attention this week to a theologian of a previous generation. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was in his prime from the 1930’s to the 1960’s; much of his writing reveals the shortcomings of that age. He seemed to have only cursory knowledge of world religions. His understanding of evolution still held reservations typical of the early 20th century. He had no access to the Nag Hammadi library and, consequently, often overly simplified ancient gnostic movements. During the “cold war,” he lost sight of significant social movements. Still, he was a great theologian.

Niebuhr was a poet of Christian theology. His prose was constructed as rhetorical masterpieces. His insights emerged in ironies and paradoxes. His books were crafted, not written. The centerpiece of his thought was the critique of human pride. To Niebuhr, Christian theology expressed the sin of pride as the chief failure of being human. These words need to be unpacked to reveal their continuing relevance.
Pride is to be distinguished from being proud. We can certainly be proud of any accomplishment we or our loved ones have achieved. There is nothing wrong with working hard, achieving, and feeling proud of an accomplishment. But pride in Niebuhr means something else. First, it is a social phenomenon, not an individual one, and secondly, by pride, Niebuhr meant idolatry not accomplishment.

Idolatry is the act of making a material thing like money or an ideology like greatness into a god or supreme value. An idol in this sense substitutes for and block the vision of the real world. Money, as an ideology or idol, goes hand in hand with getting the most for the lowest possible price. To Niebuhr, this is an act of pride. It is idolatry. Money as a supreme value blocks the vision of impoverished families and child-labour caught in economic free-trade zones. A “good deal” rests on exploited lives that enable Europeans and North Americans to buy for less. Pride, for Niebuhr, holds this irony: the idol of wealth rests on exploitation. He also upheld another irony: the idol of governmental power rests on deception.

This highlights a certain impression one holds when reading Reinhold Niebuhr. The impression is that religion can be a form of idolatry. To Niebuhr, religion deals with the world of the symbolic (with creation stories and with miraculous accounts of history). Though the symbolic is important to community identity and to the formation of human relationships, Niebuhr found that symbols give themselves to pride. When symbols are disconnected from facts, symbols become the substance of delusion. Religious convictions built on delusion, to Niebuhr, are profoundly arbitrary in judgment and fundamentally deceptive in nature. In reading such words, it is as if Niebuhr is telling us how a Government can offer “alternative facts” to explain itself and how masses of people can accept this explanation as justified.

Fortunately, as a theologian, Niebuhr sounds a quiet note of hope. As a final irony, only religion holds the keys to overcoming religion. The religious impulse is to transcend the human condition, and such an impulse is necessary to judge the human condition. On the symbolic level, no religion is factually true; all religions are creations of the human symbolic impulse. But that very impulse should remind us that what is true about religion is not the actual religion itself – not Christianity or another actual religion. What is true about religion is the investment in transcendence. Transcendence is not about heaven; it is about the human imagination escaping the specific historical circumstance we are in and imaging the world differently. The imaging of justice, the imagining of truth, and even the imagining of a Government that tells the truth are all consequential of the capacity of transcendence. Each form of imagining, too, is the reason we work for and hope for a new day.

Listen to a David Galston discussion of the topic under TALKS.

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